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Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves Swords and Diamonds: Hans-Ulrich Rudel and the Problem of Soldiers Serving Evil Governments

Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel was undoubtably the greatest ground attack pilot that ever lived. His record is unsurpassed by any combat pilot flying ground attack missions. According to official Luftwaffe records he flew 2350 combat missions beginning in June 1941 and ending when he led the remains of his squadron to crash land on the American occupied airfield in Kitzingen on May 8th 1945.

Born in Rosenheim Bavaria in 1916 he joined the Luftwaffe as an officer cadet. Like many of his era Rudel was an ardent Nazi. Despite that and his unrepentant admiration for Adolf Hitler his combat achievements are unmatched.

His early career was inauspicious. He was not regarded well as a pilot and spent the Polish campaign as an observer and did not take part in a combat role during the campaign in the west, the Battle of Britain or Crete in 1940 to May of 1941. Assigned to Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2) Immelmann he finally saw combat in June 1941 in the Soviet Union and thereafter was almost always in combat.

Flying various models of the Ju-87 Stuka Rudel was one of two pilots credited with sinking the Soviet Battleship Marat at Kronstadt harbor near Leningrad (Petersburg) on September 23rd 1941. During the war he was never shot down by an opposing aircraft but was shot down by anti-aircraft artillery or forced to land 32 times. He destroyed over 2000 targets including 519 tanks, hundreds of other vehicles and artillery pieces, he previously mentioned Battleship Marat, several other ships, 70 anding craft, bridges, armored trains and 9 aircraft in air to air combat. His accomplishments during the latter part of the war are remarkable because of the Soviet dominance of the airspace on the Eastern Front. Losses among ground attack pilots flying the venerable Stukas were high and the fact that he flew multiple missions on a daily basis for a sustained period is unsurpassed in modern warfare.

He was critically wounded by the explosion of a 40mm anti-aircraft shell on February 8th 1945 and saved by the quick action of his observer. His right leg was amputated below the knee and despite his wound he returned to combat on March 25th 1945.

He was spent 10 month in American captivity and after his release moved to Argentina where he became a friend of the dictator Juan Peron. He returned to Germany and became active in right wing nationalist politics. He became a successful businessman but his still openly National Socialist political views kept him marginalized in the West German Bundeswehr.

However, with the threat of a Soviet armored assault across the German plain during the Cold War Rudel was tapped to assist the U.S. Air Force in the development of the A-10 Thunderbolt ground attack aircraft. Despite its ungainly appearance the A-10, known by its nickname Warthog” has proven to be one of the most successful combat aircraft produced by the United States. His writings on tactics were required reading for pilots involved with the aircraft’s development by the A-10’s lead designer Pierre Sprey.


Rudel was the most highly decorated officer in the Luftwaffe, holding the highest decoration awarded to anyone other than Herman Goering. Alone the holders of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds, he was awarded the gold Oak Leaves.

Rudel was a remarkable pilot and combat flyer. His valor and combat accomplishments are unquestioned but his undying attachment to Nazi ideology following the war caused a scandal that claimed the careers of two Bundeswehr Luftwaffe Generals including World War Two fighter ace Walter Krupinski (197 kills) clouds his legacy. He died in 1982 admired by British and American combat pilots including the legendary British ace Douglas Bader, who did not know his political activities; as well as Germans of Nazi or right wing political leanings. As a Luftwaffe pilot he was not a part of atrocities committed by the SS or Wehrmacht and never tried as a war criminal.

In retrospect it is important to understand that Rudel’s political views were shaped by the times in which he lived and the radicalism that swept Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. Likewise it is also important to note that unlike many others who grew up during the same period like fellow Luftwaffe aces Johannes Steinhoff and Adolf Galland, Rudel never recanted his views and published a tract in the early 1950s that condemned German officers who did not wholeheartedly support Adolf Hitler. He also recommended attacking the Soviet Union in the 1950s in order to reacquire Lebensruam.  

I think it is important to be able to recognize military accomplishments but also to recognize that even valiant soldiers can serve evil governments, and some of them give their unrequited support to the evil ideology of those regimes. Thus Rudel is not alone. He stands with other Nazi, Communist, Fascist and others soldiers of totalitarianism whose valor and deeds are tainted by evil and the crimes of the regimes that they supported.

Rudel’s mixed legacy, like many from the Nazi era as well as from other nations should serve as a reminder to any soldier, sailor or airman. That warning is to always be careful to ensure that honest patriotism does not become corrupted by the ideology of those that appeal to fear, hate and revenge as the source of their power.


Padre Steve+


Filed under aircraft, Military, Political Commentary, world war two in europe

The Graf Zeppelin and Aquila: Dreams of the Axis Carrier Air Enthusiasts

While the U.S. Navy, the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy developed mature Fleet Air Arms and the French Navy experimented with the conversion of a Normandie class battleship hull into a carrier the Bearn the German Kriegsmarine and Italian Royal Navy the Regio Marina lagged behind. The Italian effort was hobbled by inter-service rivalries and doctrinal debates as well as political battles. As a result the Italians maintained a Seaplane Carrier until Mussolini decided in favor of a carrier. In Germany the effort was precluded by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. In 1935 the Anglo-German Naval Treaty allowed the Germans to build carriers up to 35,000 tons displacement and the same year Hitler announced that Germany would build aircraft carriers. German Naval and Luftwaffe Officers travelled to Japan in 1935 to study the Japanese Carrier Akagi and the German Carrier Flugzugträger A later the Graf Zeppelin was laid down a year later.

The Italian Aircraft Carrier Aquila

Neither ship would ever become operational. The Italian ship named Aquila which was converted from the Ocean Liner Roma was begun in 1941 and by 1943 was nearing completion and already her static tests when Italy surrendered and she was commandeered by the Germans.  Damaged by an allied air attack in 19on 44 she was partially scuttled on 19 April 1945.  Aquila was salvaged and consideration was given to completing her after the war but she was scrapped in 1951.

Incomplete Aquila in German hands 1944

Reggiane Re.2001 Falco II

As a carrier Aquila displaced 28,000 tons full load and would have been capable of a maximum speed of 30 knots.  She was designed to carry an air group of 51 Reggianne Re.2001 OR Serie II figher-bomber/torpedo bombers able to carry a able to carry a 600 kg torpedo or bomb.  Had she been started in 1938 or 1939 instead of 1941 she might have been completed in time to be of assistance to the Italian Navy in its operations against the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean.

The Kriegsmarine Carrier Graf Zeppelin

The Germans faced their own challenges and despite the fact that Graf Zeppelin was launched on 8 December 1938 she was never completed and never achieved an operational status.  Part of the problem was the weakness of the Kreigsmarine in relation to the other services, especially Goering’s Luftwaffe which maintained control of all German aircraft design, construction and operation. The other major issue was the lack of experience the Germans had in carrier design or construction which resulted in a number of retrofits which lasted until 1943 when she was nearly complete. At that point in time Hitler now thoroughly disillusioned with the Kriegsmarine surface units suspended her construction.   She was scuttled in April 1945 before she could be captured by the Soviets. The Soviet Union would study her and use her in ordnance testing to see what kind of damage a carrier might absorb.  She sank following being hit by 24 bombs, projectiles and two torpedoes.

The incomplete Graf Zeppelin

As a carrier Graf Zeppelin was 33,550 tons and would have capable of 35 knots with a 9,000 mile cruising range at 19 knots. Her air group would have been comprised of 30 Bf 109T fighters and 12 Ju 87 dive bombers.

Bf 109 T

The completion of either of these ships by the Axis Powers would probably not altered the course of the war but would have been an interesting footnote to history had they become operational and participated in any action against Allied Carriers.

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in europe

Wings of Gold: U. S. Navy Carrier Aircraft 1935-1941

Curtiss BF2C Goshawks (US Navy Photo)

As the United States Navy built up its Carrier Force in the mid to late 1930s it continued to develop aircraft specifically designed to operate from aircraft carriers.  It continued its development of fighter, dive bomber and torpedo bomber aircraft.  In 1935 the Navy was operating the Grumman FF-1 biplane fighter which it had began using in 1933 and the Curtiss F11C and BF2C Goshawk. The Curtiss aircraft were built in fighter and bomber variants and while initial aircraft had an open cockpit and fixed landing gear later aircraft had an enclosed cockpit and retractable landing gear. They had top speed of 157 miles an hour and due to limited success and were retired from service by 1939.  The Goshawk was operated against the Japanese by Nationalist China and also served in a number of air forces including Thailand where they were used against the French and Japanese.

Grumman FF-1 (US Navy Photo)

The Grumman FF-1 was a two-seater that had a enclosed cockpit with retractable landing gear and a top speed of 201 miles an hour.  The FF-1 was faster than any naval aircraft of its era, a follow-on variant designated the SF-1 followed and 120 aircraft were built. Most of the operational aircraft served aboard the USS Lexington CV-2 in a fighter and scouting role. The FF-1 and SF-1 were withdrawn from first line service and placed with the reserve as well as being used in aviation training commands. The aircraft was manufactured under license by the Canadian Car and Foundry Company and served in the Canadian Air Force until 1942 as the Goblin and 40 of the Canadian aircraft were used by the Spanish Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War.

Grumman F2F-1 (US Navy Photo)

The FF-1/SF-1 was followed by the Grumman F2F a single-seat model with improved speed and maneuverability over is predecessors.  54 F2F’s were ordered in 1934 with the production models being delivered between April and August 1935.  The aircraft were armed with 2 .30 machine guns mounted above the cowl and had a top speed of 231 miles an hour and maximum range of 985 miles.  The aircraft would remain in service until they were replaced in 1939 with the Grumman F3F. However they remained in service as utility and training aircraft until retired from service toward the end of 1940.

Grumman F3F (US Navy Photo)

The Grumman F3F followed the F2F with 157 production models. It was more aerodynamic and had a more powerful engine that the F2F which enabled it to achieve a top speed of 264 miles an hour.  It was operated by seven Navy and Marine Corps Squadrons and entered service in 1936 and would serve aboard carriers until replaced in late 1941. It continued with 117 aircraft being stationed at naval air stations and used for training until 1943.

F2A Brewster Buffalo (U.S. Navy Photo)

The first monoplane fighter developed and placed in service by the Navy was the F2A Brewster Buffalo. The Buffalo served with Navy and Marine Corps squadrons and was purchased by Great Britain for service in the Royal Australian and Royal New Zealand Air Forces which received 202 Buffalos. They would also serve with the Royal Navy. The Royal Netherlands Air Force received 144 most of which served in the East Indies. The final nation to receive the Buffalo was Finland which received 44 aircraft.  Buffalo was underpowered and the addition of armor and added fuel capacity further diminished the speed and performance of the aircraft.  The Navy placed its Buffalo’s in advanced training squadrons in early 1942 and one of the two Marine Corps squadrons (VMF-221) operated it at the Battle of Midway where they endured fearful losses at the hands of Japanese Zero fighters.

Brewster Buffalo 239s of the Finnish Air Force

Despite the lack of success in U. S. service the Buffalo performed in a heroic manner for the Finns destroying over 500 Soviet and German aircraft and producing 36 Buffalo Aces.  The highest scorer was Captain Hans W. Wind with 39 of 75 victories flying a Buffalo.  British Commonwealth and Dutch aircraft did not fare as well as the Finns as the tropical climate degraded the aircraft considerably.

Martin T4M over Lexington or Saratoga (US Navy Photo)

The Navy also developed aircraft for bombing missions as well as that could launch aerial torpedoes. The first aircraft built were dual purpose in that they could be used in level bombing and torpedo missions. In 1935 the primary aircraft of this type was the Martin T4M which had entered service in 1928 and replaced the Douglas DT and Martin T4M aircraft.  The T4M was a biplane with a crew of three that had a maximum speed of 114 miles an hour (I have driven much fast than this on the German Autobahn but I digress) and it could carry a torpedo or bombs.  155 were purchased by the Navy and the Marine Corps between 1928 and 1931.  They were operated from the Lexington and Saratoga until 1938 as no replacement aircraft offered enough improvements for the Navy to purchase and were instrumental in the development and demonstration of the capabilities of naval air power.  They were finally replaced by the Douglas TBD Devastator.

TBD Devastator (US Navy Photo)

The TBD which first flew in 1935 entered service in 1937 and at the time was possibly the most modern naval aircraft in the world and was a revolutionary aircraft. It was the first monoplane widely used on carriers and was first all-metal naval aircraft.  It was the first naval aircraft with a totally enclosed cockpit, the first with hydraulic powered folding wings.  The TBD had crew of three and had a maximum speed of 206 miles an hour and carried a torpedo or up to 1500 pounds of bombs (3 x 500) or a 1000 pound bomb.  129 were built and served in all pre-war torpedo bombing squadrons based aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger, Yorktown, Enterprise and Hornet with a limited number embarked aboard Wasp.  The Devastator saw extensive service prior to the war which pushed many airframes to the end of their useful service life and by 1940 only about 100 were operational.  They were still in service in 1942 as their replacement the TBF Avenger was not ready for service.  They performed adequately against minor opposition at Coral Sea and in strikes against the Marshalls but the squadrons embarked on Yorktown (VT3), Enterprise (VT-6) and Hornet (VT-8) were annihilated at Midway with only 6 of 41 surviving their uncoordinated attacks against the Japanese Carrier Strike Force.  They were too slow, had poor maneuverability, insufficient armor and defensive armament.  Only a few were able to launch their torpedoes as the Japanese Combat Air Patrol tore through them. Their sacrifice was not in vain as the Dive Bombers arrived facing no opposition and sank three of the four Japanese carriers getting the fourth later in the day. After Midway the remaining aircraft were withdrawn from active service in the Pacific. The Ranger’s VT-4 operated them until September 1942and Wasp’s VT-7 operated them in the Atlantic until she was transferred to the Pacific in July 1942.   By 1944 all remaining aircraft had been scrapped.

Vought SBU Corsair

In the mid 1930s the Navy began to develop Scout and Dive Bombers for use in carrier scouting (VS) and bombing (VT) squadrons.  The first of these aircraft types were biplanes.  The Grumman SF-1 was used in a scouting and bombing role and was joined by the Vought SBU Corsair in 1935 and by 1937 both were being replaced by the Curtiss SBC Helldiver, a biplane with a 234 mile an hour maximum speed, retractable landing gear, enclosed cockpit which could carry a 1000 bomb.

Curtis SBC Helldiver

However the era of the biplane was drawing to a close and the Helldiver would be relegated to training squadrons based in Florida.  Although they had a brief service career they were instrumental in develop dive bombing tactics at which the U.S. Navy excelled and which were copied by the German Luftwaffe with the Junkers JU-87 Stuka and the Japanese with the Aichi 99 Val naval dive bomber.  50 aircraft were transferred to the French and served aboard the carrier Bearn but due to the French surrender in June of 1940 saw no action and spent the war rotting in Martinique.

Vought SB2U Vindicator

The Helldiver’s were joined by the first monoplane dive bomber in U.S. service the Vought SBU2 Vindicator in 1937. The Vindicator was used by the Navy and the Marine Corps serving aboard the Lexington, Saratoga, Ranger and Wasp. They would remain in service until September 1942. The Marine aircraft equipped two squadrons VMSB 131 and VMSB-241, VMSB 241 suffered heavy casualties at Midway as the aircraft were underpowered and were limited to glide bombing missions.  After they were taken out of the operational squadrons the Vindicator served as a training aircraft until retired in 1945.   A French Naval Air Squadron was equipped with the Vindicator but they served ashore against the German invasion.  Most were lost to enemy action.  The Douglas SBD Dauntless was introduced in 1940 and 1941 but I will cover that aircraft in the World War II aircraft article that will follow this in a week or two.

These aircraft helped pave the way to aircraft that would be the mainstays of the Navy in the Second World War, aircraft with names such as Dauntless, Helldiver, Avenger, Hellcat and Corsair.  Naval aviation earned its “wings of gold” in these early years wings that continue to shine in the 21st Century.


Padre Steve+


Filed under aircraft, Military, US Navy, world war two in the pacific